Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Science fiction that matters

Dark Matter

By Blake Crouch


Publisher: Crown

Pub. Date: July 26, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

You can be forgiven if you think the available descriptions of Dark Matter sound vaguely like Blake Crouch's popular series Wayward Pines. They both deal with a man who wakes up in an unfamiliar environment and discovers that what once was may not be. But that is where the similarity ends. While Wayward Pines has its share of twists and turns, Dark Matter breaks the barrier with twists and turns. So much so that the unenviable task of telling the basic plot is fraught with the dangers of telling too much. But I'll try.

Jason Dessen lives a happy life with his wife Danielle and his teenage son, Charlie. Yet there is a slight bit of regret when he realizes that he gave up a potentially brilliant career in research for a teaching job and his wife abandoned her blossoming career as a professional artist. This feeling of "what may have been" isn't helped when his colleague friend wins a major award in Physics, one that Jason felt he could have pursued and won. As Jason is out one night, he is abducted by a man with a gun. "How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason?" the abductor asks. Shortly after, Jason wakes up in a science lab. He is still himself but nothing else seems the same.

That is where I will stop the synopsis. Yet it is fitting to examine the title Dark Matter which is a big hint on where this book is headed. As the novel explains, dark matter is a theoretical substance in quantum physics that could lead to the possibility of multiverses. . We get a number of scientific theories and ideas in the telling of this tale including the example of the quintessential Schrodinger's Cat. But the author is too good to lose us in the science. The science becomes entrenched in the story. Action and theory flow together and merge freely in our imagination. This is a nerd book for non-nerds, so to speak. Crouch never loses the human aspect of the story. Jason becomes very real and very conflicted to the reader which heightens our tension and our empathy.

The excitement in Dark Matter is created by how the plot moves into so many other areas but never leaves the emotional focus of our protagonist. This is not a science fiction story that trips up itself in technical issues. It is a human story that exists hand and hand with the science. There is no doubt that this will appeal to the science fiction fan, especially those who love books dealing with alternate realities and multiverses. Yet Dark Matter has a distinct mainstream appeal for those who like books about the burden of life decisions and our uncertainty about the ones we make. Despite a very satisfactory ending, the author leaves things a bit open at the end and is screaming for a sequel. Indeed it is ripe for another of Blake Crouch's series. That is a series that I can become truly excited about. Dark Matter has all the makings of a mainstream crossover novel and I would not be surprised if it became the summer hit of 2016. There is no doubt it is, so far, the best science fiction novel of the year.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Two tales of pulp horror

Run to Ground

By Jasper Barks


Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing

Pub. Date: June 10. 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I like Jasper Bark’s style. If the two pieces of short fiction in Run to Ground are prime examples, his writings are a deft combination of hardcore pulp fiction and moral tale. Clive Barker meets Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Bark’s main characters in these two stories are not the most likeable characters. In fact, they are fairly repulsive. They are thrown into a fate that may be excessive but oh so delicious in a “eww, gross” sort of way.

Take the title story. The main character Jim McLeod is a man who makes a career out of running away from life, commitments, and responsibility. But when we meet him he is doing a different kind of running away from creatures in a cemetery that are devouring his only friends. We are given flashbacks to help us understand how this horror came to our protagonist and it isn’t pretty. When we get to the end we end up with a weird mixture of glee and angst. Bark may have developed an almost perfect blend of back story in this short tale where past and present blends together in the horror. The terror hits early and hard yet the flashbacks do not slow it down yet makes us only more willing to meet the shock at the end.

The author isn’t happy with the usual monster chase. “Somehow it was possessing the soil, like a vengeful spirit, converting the earth to whatever it was, then releasing it as it moved alongside the path in pursuit of him.” Bark’s strength is in creating creatures we haven’t seen before and then making them as real as any other monsters that grace the pages of a horror novel. This is also true of the second story, “How the Dark Bleeds”. We are introduced to a questionably sane woman and find out more as the story continues. We are also thrown into a legend that gives us another strange and unique monster. Bark seems to excel in that strange sub-genre of body horror and he revels in it beautifully.

Both tales read fast and furious. They are nice examples of pulp horror and they deliver a big kick for the money. The author states they are part of a series of stories based on The Quar’m Saddic Heresy. It adds a nice Lovecraftian tone to the fiction. There is even a short scholarly essay added that explains the heresy. It fooled me enough to google it! In the edition that I read there is also two excerpts from his novel, The Final Cut which is not reviewed here.
I was pleasantly surprised by Jasper Bark. He is one of those writers that showed up out of the dark and dropped a little bomb into my knowledge of horror. He is the kind of writer that should get more recognition. Run to Ground should be enough for most readers to get hooked into his pulp horror world.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

An American tale that isn't pretty but beautiful

The Heavenly Table

By Donald Ray Pollock


Publisher: Doubleday

Pub.Date: July 12, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 Southern Gothic is alive and well and generously dosed with a bit of Hillbilly Crime Noir and Redneck Existentialism in The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock. This is his third book and with it, he has pretty much cemented his status as the 21th century’s answer to William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy all rolled into one. In his first two books, He introduced us to the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio and in this one, he turns Meade, Ohio of 1917 into a tableau of down-and-outs, barely surviving farmers and townsmen, and the outcasts beyond and between the law.

In The Heavenly Table we are introduced to the Jewett Family, Pearle and his three sons named Kane, Cob, and Chimney, who barely make a living sharecropping and often surviving on anything they can scrounge off the land. Pearle tells his boys they suffer now so they can eat off the heavenly table after death. Yet when their father passes away, they decide to emulate their fictional Pulp Western book Hero Bloody Bill Bucket and take to robbing banks. With the reluctant acceptance of slow-in-the-mind Cob, they are willing to sacrifice the heavenly table for more earthly comforts even if it means violence and bloodshed. Their exploits take them from Alabama and on the way to Canada until everyone meets up in Meade, Ohio.

By “everyone”, I mean a slew of characters ranging from a farmer and his wife who loses their savings, a gay soldier who hopes to meet his death in glory in the battlefields of World War II, an outhouse inspector cursed with a large piece of biological equipment, a black out of jail bum who is easily used and abused by pretty much everyone, and a bartender with a gruesome secret. While the Jewett brothers are the focal point of the novel, Pollock weaves all these tales together to form a world of his own with a desperation all its own.

Pollock’s world view may seem a bit rough. There is a lot of violence and a lot of cold-blooded and mean behavior but it is tempered with the author’s uniquely dark humor that acknowledged a good human nature trying to dig its way out. There is just enough tenderness in the hard lives of these characters to keep you interested and involved. There may be a lot of cruelty but few of them are evil. Most of them are surviving in the only way they know how. That is why I found this novel to be so incredible. The insightful prose never stops. There are many eloquent passages about the nature of man and society…

“As blind as he was to most of his defects, even Powys knew that the first thing a man lost when he entered politics was his humanity.”

One of the few comparisons to Pollock’s Ohio tableau in literature may be Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, although Pollock’s Meade and, the earlier used Knockemstiff are actual Ohio locations. Both literary landscapes take a slice of America and populate it with characters that sing off the pages. Yet Pollack has the cynicism of Flannery O’Connor and the sparse realism of Cormac McCarthy to spice up his form of storytelling. And storytelling is exactly what the author is doing by weaving a variety of stories to make an exquisite whole.

Donald Ray Pollock, for my money, is the most exciting American author actively writing. He has solidified his own unique style with three books. Any of the three are well worth reading but The Heavenly Table is the most complex and original of the three. If this doesn’t make the top five novels on any reviewers list this year then something is not right with the world.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sex and death

The Sadist's Bible

By Nicole Cushing


Publisher: 01publishing

Pub. Date: April 5, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Ellie is in a loveless marriage and a loveless life. She believes she is a lesbian but her strict religious upbringing and her stifling marriage has blocked any attempts to explore these feelings. A yearning to explore her desires and an overwhelming hopelessness which sparks an urge to die leads her to a secret internet group that pairs partners for suicide. Lori, who Ellie sees as a kindred spirit, convinces her to leave her husband and come to her for a final night of sex and death. What Ellie does not know is that Lori has ulterior motives having to do with cheating God (or is it the Devil?) who she believes is the father of her child.

Nicole Cushing writes bizarre erotic horror that is not for everyone. There is a darkness in her stories that is generously laced with sexual kink, body horror, and a deeply repressive nihilism. Her writing is also quite beautiful. In The Sadist’s Bible, we are thrown head-on into Ellie’s ennui. “She dressed without fanfare. She dreamed without fanfare. It seemed the only way to live.” So when she is given a way out, no matter how destructive it may seem to us, we feel her anticipation and doubt even though we know she is headed into a nightmare. Lori is more of an enigma to the reader. She is deceitful and crazy but perhaps not delusional. As Ellie gets closer to her date with suicide, we discover more about the forces that are involved. It becomes a bleak and scary downhill ride and the author doesn’t pull any punches. There is an exquisite balance of terror, repulsion and beauty in her descriptions. I am not always sure I like what I read but the amazing prose keeps me there.

And that is the dilemma for me. The Sadist’s Bible is beautiful but at the same time is unpleasant and immensely disturbing. But it is the kind of disturbing that keeps you thinking about it long after you turned the last page. There is an almost Dante-esque quality in Ellie’s journey into her personal hell. It is hard to say if there is a definitive theme here but I would say it is about Humankind’s battle between a mundane existence and a yearning for the forbidden and visceral excitement that often results in destruction. Ellie would prefer death over monotony even if that “death” leads to an existence more terrible than life. Or maybe, because it does?

Whatever the meaning you get out of The Sadist’s Bible, the power of the writing is unmistakable. You may find yourself cringing at some parts yet this is the type of hardcore horror novel that will reward the brave. I think you will understand me when I say I may not have liked it but I still loved it. It is a book worth experiencing.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Creatures of the deep


By Brian Keene

Publisher: Thomas Dunn Books

Pub. Date: June 21, 2016

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It's time for summer reading. When I travel I try to pick novels that fit the environment. Going to Washington DC? A juicy political novel. The South? Southern Gothic or maybe a James Lee Burke mystery depending on my mood. The Southwest? Edward Abbey or Hillerman is a must. Canada or Alaska? Something on the frigid side like a Robert W. Service collection or Dan Simmon's The Terror which actually got me turning up the thermostat a few degrees. But if you are going to the beach I have just the thing for you this year. Brian Keene's Pressure, which takes place on and slightly off the island of Mauritius, has the perfect ocean vibes with its sea diving and maritime scares.

In Pressure, The sea shelf around Mauritius is collapsing. A crew of scientists including free diver and marine biologist Carrie Anderson are trying to find out why. One of her dives result in the death of her co-diver and hits Carrie with a number of odd injuries including hallucinations which causes her to be hospitalized. But she also saw something large, dark and terrifying which sends her back into the waters to explore. What she and her companions discover is something that a large and corrupt corporation wants to keep a secret and is willing to kill for in order to accomplish that task.

Brian Keene is known mostly for his horror novels and Pressure certainly has some horrifying sections especially as we meet the creature. Yet it is more of a techno-thriller in the style of Crichton or Preston & Child than a horror novel. It is a good techno-thriller yet it caught me off guard especially at the beginning of the book where strange occurrences like plummeting temperatures and deadly hallucinations broadcasted something different in the mind of the horror fanatic I am. But once I acclimated to the thriller and corporate greed aspects, I was on board. Carrie Anderson is a likable and spunky character . Her two main companions also have essential characteristics that are stalwarts of the techno/horror thriller. There are plenty of seedy and untrustworthy types around to throw our heroine into more trouble. Yet where the book works best is under the sea and on the ship where we experience the horrors that the author appears most comfortable with. It is appropriately weird and terrifying. But later we hit the shoreline and the corporate baddies take over. It becomes fun but a bit underwhelming compared to the first half. I guess I would rather read about Carrie confronting unspeakable horrors rather than unspeakable business practices.

Surface is entertaining but having read much from the author, I came away pleased but not thrilled. I prefer his novels where he is throwing zombies at us or delightfully destroying the world over and over again. This is one of those times that I must take in account what I know the author can do and what he is currently offering. That makes it a good but not remarkable endeavor. Yet if you are looking for that summer read in the techno-thriller market, you just might find Pressure to fit the bill and may be even a little above average for the genre. For now, I will give it my beach read for the summer recommendation and leave it at that.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Cuddly Cthulhu

C is for Cthulhu: The Lovecraft Alphabet Book

By Jason Ciaramella (illustrations by Greg Murphy)

Publisher: ComixTribe

Pub. Date: 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

We must prepare for the rising of unspeakable horror upon our planet. No, I am not talking about David Icke's Reptilians or ISIS or even The Donald.

I am speaking about the Old Ones.

H. P Lovecraft warned us about them and the insanity and destruction that will follow. It is inevitable. However, we can prepare for it. And most importantly, we can prepare our children in realizing that which cannot be named or described, and likely to drive you insane as an adult, can still be seen as friendly and cuddly.

Cuddly Cthulhu.

Jason Ciaramella has paved the way with this cute book titled C is for Cthulhu. This is an alphabet board book designed to please your little darling and help them become the harbingers of evil and destruction that the ancient ones will appreciate.  How can one be scared of a sleeping red Chthulu or Q'yth-az ("Don't worry, she doesn't bite") or Soggoth ("Chomp chomp chomp...BURP!").

 It is also a very nice travel book.

 We adults can also learn from it and will get as much of a kick as our children from the illustrations by Greg Murphy. Very colorful and cute in a "Awww. Monster!" way yet it still manages to depict a eerie Lovecraftian aura over the most positive childhood environment.

So the next time your child asks, "Mommy? What is that thing lumbering slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezing Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness?". You can just hand him this book and let him learn in the confines of his dungeo...er...bedroom about all the terrible and unspeakable horrors that will creep in and cuddle him to sleep. Perhaps H. P Lovecraft was right when he said, "“It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude.” Sometimes it comes in pretty colors and darling little monster drawings.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Reality TV vs the apocalypse

The Last One

By Alexandra Oliva

Publisher: Ballantine Books 

Pub. Date: July 12, 2016

Rating: 2 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

I must admit I have never been a fan of reality TV shows, mainly because they are as far from reality as humans can get without calling it a fantasy. I did get into Survivor for the first three seasons until I realize I could pick out what was scripted and predict every move. And I still regard the very entertaining but phony Pawn Stars as one of my guilty pleasures. That was only one reason I was looking forward to The Last One by Alexandra Oliva which, for most of the hype, appeared to be using the setting of a fictional reality show as a microcosm for human society and for examining the media's manufactured blend of reality and fiction.

In The Last One 12 people are appearing in a new reality show that is a cross between Survivor and The Great Race. It is a different type of reality show in that the participants compete in a "race" where, unknown to them, there is no finish line. They continue until one is left standing and their only way out is to surrender before the end is by saying the words, Ad Tenebrus Dedi. The contestant nicknamed Zoo is on a solo challenge and strays off. She comes across signs of devastation which she thinks is part of the game. Little does she know that the world is experiencing an event of apocalyptic proportions.

The idea is inspired and, at first, the implementation is brilliant. it starts with a prologue that shows the series being structured and gives us a hint of the global disaster to come. After that we get alternating chapters with different perspectives. One is in the first narrative of Zoo as she wanders thinking she is still in the game. The other is third person in which we follow all the contestants as it leads from the beginning to the end. We get a feel for the contestants who are known by their nicknames: Zoo, Rancher, Waitress, Engineer Girl, Black Doctor...yes that last one seems a little off. They resemble not only the stereotypes you see in reality shows but a microcosm of civilization. We learn their real names gradually. Some readers seem to have trouble pairing them with the nicknames but I did not find that an issue. Add to this, the author's clear mastery of her writing style. It is unarguably well written and it carried the story to the finish line.

Yet by the end of the first half of the novel, the brilliance seems to slip away. Zoo is still thinking she is in the game even when everything screams, "No!". The appearance of an young man stretches it to the point of absurdity when she thinks he is the cameraman. We are led to believe that Zoo is very smart yet that assumption is quickly going out the window due to the need to continue this hard to believe scenario. Back at the game, I am wondering what the payoff is, and I mean the payoff for the reader not the participants. With our cast of stereotyped characters and their related actions, I started to wonder if we are seeing an attempt at a Lord of the Flies/Animal Farm styled analogy yet that doesn't really work either. In a way this is a beautiful example of the need for expectation, execution, and finish in a novel. The expectation is beautifully set up. The execution is good at the beginning yet doesn't follow through. And the finish is a whimper.

I wish I could recommend this. Oliva certainly has a home-run novel in her. But this one makes it to third base and get tagged. I do seem in the minority though. . Being the author's first novel, it bodes well for things to come. But all in all, and considering the great start, it ends up a disappointment. I still recommend it over most reality TV shows though.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Ugly is only skin deep


By Jeff Strand

Publisher: Sinister Grin Press

Pub Date: June 21, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sometimes covers and descriptions for novels can be slightly deceptive. Blister is a good example of this. From the somewhat disturbing cover it appears to be a horror story. The description on the book tends to confirm this. Yet after reading this alternatively funny and intense book, I think that is too simplistic a term. Blister is a constantly entertaining tale that has large parts of comedy, horror and mystery and maybe even a love story.

Blister centers on a sometimes immature but successful cartoonist named Jason Tray. Due to one of those immature moments, he is persuaded to retreat to his agent's cabin near a small lake town. While at a bar, his new drunk friends take him to peek at the local scary legend, a hideously burned and damaged woman who is kept secluded by her father. Jason is shocked by what he sees and also shamed by his actions. He goes back the next day to apologize and finds , as we should already know, that what we are is not necessary apparent on the surface.

This is what Blister is about but it is also about closely guarded secrets and decisions that haunt us for a long time. We find out early what happened to the burned woman yet that doesn't mean we know everything, as least not yet. The characters of Blister range from well-intended to ghoulishly crazy yet they all seem real enough to involve us in the tale.

Strand's big gift is the ability to make us laugh at even the strangest and most twisted moments. There is a lot of humor in this novel yet when the serious stuff starts, the humor doesn't put us off. It a natural humor that comes from acknowledging the bad as well as the good. There are two authors that seems to have a real gift at portraying wit in a natural dialogue that sees the humor in even the scariest times. One is Joe R. Lansdale and the other is Jeff Strand.

Blister despite its horror designation works best as a mystery and as a story about unlikely friendships. I say this not to put off the horror fans, to which I owe a great part of my readership to, but to encourage those who do not like horror that much to give it a try, Yes I know there are a few of those out there. Hi mom! You guys! Ignore the scary cover and be prepared to laugh, to cry...just read the damn thing okay?